The historic Google walkout shows how powerful tech employees really are.
Last month, more than 20,000 full-time and contract workers from Google walked out of 50 offices around the world to protest the company’s handling of alleged sexual assault and misconduct. At Google’s global headquarters in Mountain View, California, 4,000 of them gathered in a courtyard next to a building where CEO Sundar Pichai’s office is located. They marched, held up signs and chanted things like “Time is up!” and “Stand up! Fight back!”
Pichai wasn’t in his office that day. Instead, he was in New York for a conference session called “Soul searching: Technology’s role in society.” But he definitely heard his employees. “Moments like this show that we didn’t always get it right,” he told the audience.
It was an unprecedented event in the tech industry, where workers historically refrain from protesting against their employers — let alone in such a visceral and public display. For Google, the walkout marked the crescendo in a year of employee dissent on issues ranging from workplace culture to Google’s projects for the US military and efforts to build a censored search engine for China. This year, more than any other in the company’s 20-year history, workers rose up when they felt that Google, whose mantra is famously “Don’t be evil,” had fallen short of its credo.
The walkout was largely successful. Management agreed to some of the demands, including ending “forced arbitration” in the cases of alleged sexual assault, which compelled accusers to waive their right to sue. (Organizers, however, say Google’s concessions didn’t go far enough regarding issues like discrimination and the rights of contractors.)
But the protest may also have a more profound effect that transcends Google. It also serves as a playbook that could reverberate throughout the technology industry.
“This is a watershed moment,” said Paul Saffo, a Stanford professor and Silicon Valley futurist. “It’s not going to calm down. If anything, it’s going to get more intense.”
Google didn’t reply to a request for comment.